As the trial of Hosni Mubarak begins in Cairo this week, the last death throes of Arab authoritarianism are echoing around a turbulent region that is striving to put an end to tyranny and to start afresh with a new democratic era. This time last year, few academic experts on the Middle East would have predicted such a swift upheaval across the Arab world.
Not many would have foreseen the dramatic images of Hosni Mubarak appearing before a court bedridden, but a year is a long time in politics and undoubtedly 2011 will go down in Middle Eastern history as one of the most spectacular in contemporary times. Rewind to 2010 and the Arab world boasted a long list of authoritarian leaders. Muammar al-Qaddafi took charge of Libya in 1969; the Assad family has ruled Syria since 1970; Ali Abdullah Saleh became president of North Yemen (later united with South Yemen) in 1978; Zine -Abidine Ben Ali ascended to Tunisia’s presidency in 1987 and Hosni Mubarak took charge of Egypt in 1981.
Mubarak and his two sons, Alaa and Gamal, as well as former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly and six former top security officials stand trial at Cairo’s Police Academy. They face charges of corruption and the killing of up to 800 pro-democracy protesters during the January uprising. Around Egypt, sections of the population especially the younger elements of the protest movement question the point of such a trial. For them the priority for a new Egypt lies in the coming November elections. The economy has been faltering for some time now and with the recent uprising, a serious downturn in tourist revenues has further deepened the economic crisis.
With such a daunting list of political and economic problems to solve one would have to wonder if the trial of Mubarak and co is really worth the enormous media attention it is receiving. But the reality is that for Egypt and the wider region this is a crucial turning point in recent history. Mubarak’s trial will highlight the utter lack of legitimacy that Arab authoritarianism has suffered from over the past few decades. Since the mid 1960s, successive Egyptian rulers have faced significant blows to their hegemonic project, but with the backing of the military they were able to entrench themselves across the spectrum of Egyptian society.
Mubarak was the longest-ruling Egyptian leader since Mohamed Ali Pasha, the 19th-century Ottoman viceroy who is considered the founder of modern Egypt. Yet the seeds to Mubarak’s downfall were sown in the latter part of Gamal Abdul Nasser’s rule during the sixties. It is remarkable to see how the Nasserist project was played out in the aftermath of the defeat of Israel in 1967.
Following Egypt’s independence in 1952, the economic optimism of Nasser’s early socialist ambitions had all but vanished by the mid 1960s, especially in the aftermath of a balance of payments crisis in 1964. By 1968, the political situation was in paralysis as mass anti-regime protests became a permanent feature of the polity after the June 1967 defeat to the Israelis. Under these conditions faith in the Nasserist project unravelled, forcing it to rely on ever more repressive measures until a change of leadership in 1970 and the beginnings of Anwar Sadat’s premiership. Confidence in central Nasserist ideas such as Arab unity was shattered when confronted with the Israeli enemy. Pan Arab solidarity was exposed as fraudulent in its inability to unite against Israel, leading to a swift and humiliating defeat.
For the ever growing Egyptian working classes and poor peasants, the 1967 defeat represented all that was wrong with Nasserism – socialist, so therefore atheist and foreign by association, and bourgeoisie imperialist, proved by its betrayal of the modernization programme that Nasser had promised after independence. This was amplified when Cold War tensions decreased, so too did Egypt’s bargaining power in international relations, which was exacerbated by the 1967 War. Egypt’s ability to play the US and the Soviets off each other for financial aid decreased as each superpower now only gave conditional loans based on their own strategic interests. Under Anwar Sadat, Egyptian political authoritarianism spread to the economic sphere as Sadat’s ‘open door’ policy hastened the ownership of the state’s resources into the hands of the wealthy few, whilst the masses plummeted further into poverty. By the time of Hosni Mubarak’s ascent to the premiership, the Nasserist project had extended its authoritarian hand across the various sectors of Egyptian society. Decades of brutal repression, economic corruption and a closed political space trapped the Egyptian populace into a vicious cycle of mass arrests, fraudulent elections and despotic arrogance. This was a similar story across the Arab world, as authoritarian regimes including the Assads in Syria, Ben Ali in Tunisia, and Saleh in Yemen, economically exploited their populations, increased their stranglehold on the polity and entrenched themselves into every facet Arab culture.
I mentioned at the start of this article how unprepared Middle Eastern Studies academics were for the present Arab spring. How the swiftness of the uprisings caught off guard many inside and outside of the Arab world. This is a fact. Yet the real legacy of the Arab spring must not be why we were unable to predict the present upheaval; rather it must be to examine the lessons learn from Arab authoritarianism. For the West, this means looking beyond strategic interests and the maintenance of convenient authoritarian allies so encompassed by Mubarak’s friendly relationship with the US. It means moving past the scaremongering of the Islamist ‘bogeymen’ as a reason for upholding authoritarian regimes. But most importantly it means putting Arab authoritarianism on trial in all its guises so that we may learn not to repeat the same mistakes again, so that the next generation across the Arab world can move towards a real democratic transition away from authoritarianism towards good governance.